Jim Steel Old Man Strength Article

Old Man Strength

Old Man Strength

What is "Old Man Strength? Some call it "Dad Strength". If you grew up in the 1980’s or early 1990’s or before, you are probably aware of “Old Man Strength”, the  phenomena where an older man, usually a dad aged 40-55 or maybe even older, can still display strength that he seemingly should not have at this point in his life, especially compared to a younger man. I usually reference the 1980’s and early 1990’s or before, because after that time, I figure, fathers and men in general (not all of them of course), stopped doing very physical work and moved indoors for more white collar jobs, and a less physically demanding life in general. 

My father was born in 1933, and although he became a professor eventually, he was no stranger to back breaking work. He loaded box cars to work his way through college. When he bought his first house in the late 1950’s, he decided that he wanted to build stone walls all around it. So he would drive to a local quarry, load up his old Ford Falcon station wagon to the brim with rocks, usually weighing 20-50 pounds apiece, and go back and forth, making 20-25 trips on the weekend. My dad was never into lifting weights. In fact, back in his day, lifting weights was frowned upon. It was thought to make you muscle bound and to stop younger kids from growing (“you’ll stunt your growth”), so athletes, well, almost everyone back then shied away from lifting weights. So what my father was doing was lifting weights without going to a gym. He was moving his body in all kinds of ways with those stones and strengthening his whole body by doing it. Sounds a little like strong man training, no? And he did other physical activities; loading dirt in a wheelbarrow and pushing it up hills to build a garden, chopping wood and stacking it (we had a killer brick fireplace), building fish ponds on the property, and various other activities that were physically challenging.

Men back then would never think about hiring someone to cut their lawns or do work around their house! No way! It was unheard of to do something like that, it made you less of a man in their mind. You could have a buddy help you out, of course. Like my Uncle George helped my father. Uncle George was also a professor with my father, but grew up working as a mechanic in a garage in Frederick, Maryland. He built our brick fireplace, put an addition on our house and built our back porch. My father would get the supplies and do the heavy lifting and assist him, but Uncle George did the building. And he did this type of stuff for all of his friends. Never took a payment, just enjoyed the hard work. My friend growing up, Charlie Dipasquale, had a father who laid brick for a living. He was a Sicilian immigrant who was hard as nails. If a squirrel was freshly killed on the road, he'd pick it up and bring it home to cook. He was not a big man, but I remember that he had these huge, mitt-like hands and forearms from laying bricks all day, and a grip like a vice.

And I'm sure that all of you can think of examples right now in your head of how old man strength displayed itself when you were young; the football coach who demonstrated a particular technique and shook you like a rag doll, the old man who wandered into a bar and beat the buff kid in arm wrestling, your old man picking up something that you couldn’t, or maybe your old man picking you up when you thought you were strong and tough and picking on your younger sister.

So how is that type of strength developed and how can you develop it? Some say that neural factors are involved.

“As you age, neuromuscular control improves up to about age 55,” says Brandon Roberts, M.S., C.S.C.S., a doctoral student of muscle biology at University of Florida. “At this point, the receptors required to activate muscle also start to decline.” Take Roberts’ example of a son, 20, losing to his 45-year-old father in arm wrestling. “The father has been working out for 20+ years and therefore has developed better control of activating his muscles at various force outputs,” Roberts explains. “The son also works out but has only been exercising for a few years, and his testosterone levels are technically higher, but that doesn’t play a big role in the ability to control muscle.” Amy Roberts, C.P.T , “What’s the deal with old man strength?” https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/whats-deal-old-man-strength/)

That makes sense to me. The old men can call on those factors to activate because they have activated them a lot longer than young whippersnapper. Lots of hours, lots of reps of lifting stuff. 

So let’s say that you are wanting to develop this type of strength, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. Maybe you work in an office all day, and you live in a condo so there aren’t many opportunities to build stone walls. You do have time to get to the gym for an hour or so 3-4 days a week. And you have some time for some outdoor activities, too. What to do? 

I say try to replicate those old man feats from yesteryear by mimicking the type of work that they used to do. First, get to a gym and get as strong as possible in the squat, bench, deadlift, and press. That is your strength foundation, your suit of armor against injury. Then you have two choices (and this may sound a little nuts), but you can find a hiking trail and then go off of the trail and pick up and carry and throw and simply lift off of the ground whatever heavy logs and stones that you can find. Then you go up the trail a little more and go find some other stuff to throw around like a caveman. Or, maybe in addition, go to a well-equipped gym and do some strongman stuff; picking up Atlas stones, the log lift, pushing the sled, dragging the sled, heavy push presses, flipping the tire. You could hit the tire with a sledgehammer but damn, just go find a log somewhere and split it. I can't watch that one. Too contrived. Back to the program. This type of program is fun stuff, and I believe that although the big lifts are vital, there is something about moving odd shaped heavy things, something that I feel we were meant to do evolutionarily, not to always lift everything in a straight line. Our bodies don't always move like that. But I promise you, if you go into the woods and throw some stones around and press some logs, it will add a whole new enjoyable dimension to your training regimen. 

Old man strength. Not just an old wives tale, but a real thing that afflicts a hearty man who put in a lot of work for many years. And you can develop it also, if you follow my training recommendations. And maybe one day, a bunch of kids will say, “That dude has that old man strength!” about you.

*Photo credit Jim Steel 53 year old dad.


About The Author. Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog Basbarbell and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.